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Tea Leaves

Hope and peril for wild tigers in India

Animal numbers are rising again but threat of extinction remains

The quartet of tiger cubs cavorted about their mother, teasing at her flank with their noses. She yawned, stretched and then bounded, swatting at her babies with sinewy power and surprising tenderness. The scene set my head swimming with poetry; snatches of William Blake's "Tyger Tyger, burning bright."

The tiger is the embodiment of charismatic megafauna in trouble. Less than 4,000 remain in the wild today, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Of the original nine subspecies, three -- the Bali, Caspian and Javan -- are already extinct, while a fourth, the South China tiger, is arguably also lost.

But there is new cause for hope. In 2016, the World Wildlife Fund confirmed that the wild tiger population had increased for the first time in 100 years to at least 3,890 tigers, a rally from the 3,200 animals counted in 2010.

Much of this modest success is the result of efforts in India, home to 2,230 tigers or some 60% of the world population. Conservation efforts began in the 1970s when nine protected reserves were established under the banner of Project Tiger. Today India has 50 reserves spread over 70,000 sq. km.

The tigress and her cubs, the sight of which had me recite Blake's poem "The Tyger," were playing in the Kanha reserve of India's central state of Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the country's poorer regions, with an annual per capita income of just over $1,000. But tourism has the potential to transform the economy and tigers are a big draw. The state has about 300 wild tigers that range across six protected reserves.

Over one week I visited three of the state's parks, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna, that stretch north across 350km. Safaris take place in the early morning when tigers are most active. Spotting wild life in India is different from in Africa, where herds of zebra and prides of lion are so plentiful as to almost inure you to their wonder. In India you need to work to find your animal. Dense forests of teak and sal mean that sightings need to be close to the dusty tracks called pugdundees along which the jeeps trundle.

I am told that tigers' paws are surprisingly soft and prone to injury from thorns and bramble, so that (luckily for tourists) they prefer strolling along the pugdundees to tramping through thick jungle. It is bitingly cold on morning safaris, as one rises before dawn to enter the park in an open jeep. The hot water bottles provided by the hotel quickly become tepid. As the horizon brightens, the air is still, mist rising off the watering holes, occasionally broken by the raucous cries of a peacock or rustle of a spotted deer.

I become finely attuned to every sign that could indicate a tiger: the warning cries of langur monkeys and barking deer, fresh paw prints in the sand, a mound of scat. Helping to direct my attention are the jeep driver and forest ranger duo who accompany every visitor on safari.

One of the big hurdles in conservation is animal-human conflict, to which the only solution lies in giving a stake in the conservation process to those villagers affected by the creation of forest zones for tigers. All the drivers and forest rangers I encountered in Madhya Pradesh's tiger sanctuaries were locals, men who would have been eking out an alternative living as farmers. They zip about in jeeps and talk of the tigers with a sense of ownership. Additional employment opportunities for locals come from the hotels that range from basic lodges to $1,000-a-night luxury camps.

At our lodge in Bandhavgarh the nightly entertainment included a "tribal" dance, featuring indigenous Baiga people. Wearing crowns of peacock feathers they whirled about in a circle while beating drums slung around their necks.

Since the 1970s, the Baigas, a tribal group from central India who practice shifting cultivation in the forests, have been the victim of forced relocations away from tiger sanctuaries and the buffer zones surrounding them, often with inadequate or no compensation. But more recently, compensation has been stepped up, in some areas to as high as a $15,000 one-off payment per adult family member. There is a growing recognition in official circles that tiger conservation and tribal rights must go hand in hand. In 2015, the state's government recognized the Baiga's "habitat rights" under a 2006 Forest Rights Act, and assured them that the practice of forced eviction will cease.

The implementation of conservation strategies, however, often depends on the initiative of individual park officials. The Panna reserve in northern Madhya Pradesh, the last of the three I visit, is a case in point. In 2009 it was a failed project. Years of unchecked poaching and poisoning of tigers by villagers as revenge for killed cattle, had reduced the park to a single male tiger from a peak population of 24 adults in 2006.

A new field director, Rangaiah Murthy, instituted a bold tiger translocation experiment. Four female and one male tiger were brought in from other reserves in the state. Villagers were co-opted as rangers to check on the tigers' movements. Any cattle killed by the predators were promptly compensated. These measures worked. Less than a decade on, Panna is now home to 35 tigers.

Successful translocation is significant because India's conservation challenge is not only about stabilizing the number of tigers, but ensuring their genetic diversity. Relentless urbanization and infrastructure development has meant the tigers are increasingly marooned on island-like reserves unconnected to each other by forest corridors. Denied their ability to roam, the tigers are unable to widen their gene pool. If current trends of deforestation continue, inbreeding and consequent diseases may do more toward driving the tiger to extinction than well-established culprits like poachers.

Back in Kanha, the tiger cubs and their mother settled down for a snooze in the dappled sun, unaware of their peril.

Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author and member of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on the Future of Information and Entertainment.

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